What’s on the Menu for Michelle Obama’s Second Term?

Will the First Lady’s food-policy efforts be able to weather food industry opposition?
First Lady Michelle Obama sits with students for lunch at the cafeteria of Parklawn Elementary School Alexandria, VA, last January. New school meal health standards went into effect in September, but were relaxed in December after backlash from Republicans, the food industry, and students. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Jan 22, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

At Monday’s Inaugural festivities the buzz around First Lady Michelle Obama was her Jason Wu-designed gown, a certain eye-roll at House Speaker John Boehner, and her bangs. Oh, those bangs!

But once the celebrations surrounding her husband’s inauguration have faded away, what does the First Lady want the long-term buzz to be about her role in President Obama’s second term as it relates to food and nutrition?

When Parade magazine asked her this question last September, the First Lady said she wanted to “impact the nature of food in grocery stores,” with the aim of cutting sugar, fat and salt. But if her first-term activity on this front is any indication, she faces an uphill battle of monumental proportions.

MORE: No School Lunch Left Behind

Food reform—specifically reducing the ballooning childhood obesity rate—was a priority of the First Lady and the President from day one. But when the Obama administration floated the idea of a federal soda tax in early 2009, the soft-drink industry fought it to the tune of $40 million—more than eight times what it spent on lobbying the year before. And as quickly as it was proposed, the soda tax idea vanished into thin air.

In late 2009, Congress created an Interagency Working Group that would direct four federal agencies—the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and the United States Department of Agriculture—to propose voluntary nutritional standards for nutrition and advertising of foods marketed to children. Just over a year later, during which millions of dollars were spent by the food industry, the IWG was all but dead, and Congress backed off its suggested food guidelines.

The First Lady then founded her well-known Let’s Move! initiative in early 2010, a program critics say shifted the focus in the childhood obesity debate away from food companies and onto families and children. She rarely speaks about regulating the foods and beverages children are eating anymore, and is instead focusing her attention on encouraging individuals and families to eat healthier and exercise more. When she did mention the food industry, it was to praise its efforts to reduce salt and sugar by a few grams per serving—efforts that many health experts say have been minimal.

The White House’s one legislative victory regarding nutritious food, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, has faced stiff opposition from Republicans and food-industry leaders for the calorie limits it sets on school meals. Upon its implementation in cafeterias last September, the calorie cap faced criticism from some conservatives, who said students weren’t getting full under the new guidelines. And then, in early December, the Obama administration appeared to cave yet again: In a letter sent to members of Congress, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote that the Department will do away with both daily and weekly serving maximums for meats and grains.

In total, food-industry lobbyists spent more than $175 million during Obama’s first term—more than double the spending during George W. Bush’s second term—a Reuters exposé reported last April. Critics of the Obamas’ food policy accused the White House of caving to political pressure and succumbing to the smooth-talking food-industry lobbyists.

“I’m upset with the White House,” Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, told Reuters at the time. “They went wobbly in the knees. When it comes to kids’ health, they shouldn’t go wobbly in the knees.”

In her statement to Parade in September, Mrs. Obama seemed more resolved than ever to effect change not only in the home, but also at the corporate level.

“While we’ve seen some very profound cultural shifts, we still have communities that don’t have access to affordable and healthy foods,” she said at the time. “We still need to find a way to impact the nature of food in grocery stores, in terms of sugar, fat, and salt.”

Will the administration’s knees continue to wobble in the second term, as critics suggest? Well, there has already been quite a bump in the road: Recording artist Beyoncé, who sang the “Star Spangled Banner” at Monday’s Inauguration and has partnered with First Lady Obama on the Let’s Move! initiative, recently signed a $50 million deal to sell sugary soda for Pepsi. Marion Nestlé, who teaches about nutrition and public policy at New York University, wrote on her blog that Beyoncé has “done Michelle Obama no favors” by taking the Pepsi deal, going as far as to call it a “slap in the face” to the Let’s Move! campaign.

“It puts Let’s Move! in the position of promoting Pepsi or asking Beyoncé to withdraw from having anything to do with it,” she wrote when the deal was announced in December.

Is the First Lady doing enough to address childhood obesity from a nutrition and food-marketing perspective?